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How I was nearly fired over directing a Christmas play

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Posted: Tuesday, December 4, 2012 12:00 am

"If you take this job as an eighth-grade teacher, you'll be expected to direct the Christmas play," the principal told me.

This request might seem strange in today's world, but back in the late 1960s, "separation of church and state" did not have the same meaning.

"No problem, sir," I replied. "I'm quite an expert at dramatic productions. I was an extra in my high school play, 'Finian's Rainbow.'"

Truth was, I knew nothing about theatre, but I needed a good job. Times were tough, and the only other offer I had was taking a position as a manager in a low-budget chain restaurant. But then, I didn't know anything about running a food service either.

I dreaded the thought of rehearsals as they crept closer to the holiday season. Finally, the time came. I pulled out a dog-eared master script that the school used every year and began to assign parts.

Costumes were pulled out of dust-laden closets. Some students would be dressed as donkeys. Others would have halos covered in gold tinsel that would be wired to their necks. In a makeshift manger would be placed a well-worn Betsy-Wetsy doll disguised to look like the baby Jesus.

I tried to get the students "into it," but this was a different generation and time. Woodstock had just taken place during the previous summer. Social revolution was in the streets. These rurally raised kids were full of fun, vigor and vitality. They were not about to be embarrassed in front of their peers by doing something they considered seriously stodgy.

So, I threw the script aside and decided to do something different. Perhaps a little joy and laughter could be added by spoofing some of the non-religious aspects of the season and brighten up the dark foggy days of December.

The show opened a few days before the Christmas recess (yes, we called it "Christmas," not "winter break" in those days). I looked at the audience and saw a number of parents whose faces revealed an expectation of the "same old thing." However, they were about to be surprised.

It began with one of our toughest teenage girls dressed as a fairy — flapping her home-made wings and spreading "fairy dust" (confetti) among the audience. Their bored looks began to change. Sounds of giggling and laughter could be heard from the darkened part of the auditorium.

The next scene starred the singing gingerbread boys — making cookies but getting more flower and whipped cream on themselves than their product. It was all done to a background of a junior high chorus humming, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."

The third act I don't remember, but it was just as goofy as the first two.

I held my breath in anticipation that the audience response would be positive. It was, but unfortunately, a different reaction emerged from the principal and head custodian. I assured the latter that he would not be responsible, as I already had a cleanup crew ready for action. The principal, however, was another story.

"You realize after this, you won't be working here next year!" the frowning 55-year-old school leader grumbled.

Well, that was his first reaction until a board member told him otherwise. You see, his kid was one of the gingerbread boys, and he was amazed that a wholly different side of his normally shy son had emerged that night.

Not that it mattered. I quit at the end of the school year to move onto other interests.

However, I did learn two things from the experience. The first was that maybe I wasn't so bad at playing the role of a drama coach.

The second was the realization that managing an offbeat junior high Christmas play was not nearly as tough as I had originally thought. It certainly was better gig than explaining burned pancakes to complaining customers at a low-budget chain restaurant.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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